The Key to Handling Suffering

Over the course of years of doing therapy I have come to understand that there is a mechanism that underlies most problems.  I have seen this mechanism at work while helping people with the deepest hurts.  I am grateful to the incredible bravery of clients who allow themselves and me to notice experiences of betrayal and abuse that through shame, grief and pain scarred them at the time, and continue to negatively affect their day-to-day lives until successfully treated.  Through understanding the processes at work while people try to cope with this level of hurt, I began to see the same mechanisms at work in many of the things we struggle with.  I believe this mechanism is an unconscious turning away from Self and that this is a root cause of suffering – and also the key to dealing with it.

My intention here is to explain how this mechanism works and to lay the foundation for understanding what to do about it.  I will use bereavement, i.e. coping with the death of a loved one, to illustrate specifically one application of how to deal with suffering using these principles.

Like quantum mechanics in physics exploring concepts normally found in mysticism, this psychological exploration takes us into spiritual or metaphysical territory.  Rather than becoming stuck by resisting or arguing about belief systems, I invite you to take an experimental approach, try the concepts and see if they benefit you.

Fundamental Mechanisms in Trauma
Psychologists have studied trauma for many decades.  Here are some of the things we know from researchers like Daniel Siegel, Bessel Van der Kolk and John Briere.  Some human experiences are overwhelming and produce what is called dissociation.  Often as young children we unconsciously use this coping mechanism.

According to Wikepedia, “Dissociation is a state of acute mental decompensation in which certain thoughts, emotions, sensations, and/or memories are compartmentalized because they are too overwhelming for the conscious mind to integrate. This subconscious strategy for managing powerful negative emotions is sometimes referred to as “splitting“, as these thoughts, emotions, sensations, and/or memories are “split off” from the integrated ego. . . . Attention to dissociation as a clinical feature has been growing in recent years as a concomitant to knowledge of post-traumatic stress disorder, and as neuroimaging research and population studies show its relevance.”

In extreme cases, say a child being sexually abused, the victim’s attention goes away from body sensations and emotions and becomes absorbed somewhere else.  One person I interviewed for my Ph.D. dissertation, on staying with emotional pain without dissociating, reported going out of her body into a stuffed lizard mounted on the wall when her father molested her.  Most of the person’s attention goes away from self, but there is still some part of consciousness that remains in the body, and that feels the sensations and emotions.  Over time these split off experiences can be triggered unconsciously and without control – like the Vietnam War Vet who flattens to the sidewalk upon hearing a truck backfire.

When working with a person to reintegrate split off experiences, often the adult’s witnessing function either veers away from remembering the details (it’s still too painful) or fully becomes the child-self and experiences the abuse all over again, losing the adult’s objectivity.  In either case, healing does not happen.  There are different techniques to overcome this.  One technique is to patiently go back and forth between the adult’s self-awareness and the child’s remembering until the adult can hold both types of awareness at once (a process called pendulating).  Another is to use EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing), a clinically researched and proven technique for dealing with traumatic and stressful experiences.

EMDR posits that traumatic memories are stored differently than episodic or autobiographical memories and are unable to be accessed by our normal adaptive information processing capabilities.  Traumatic memories seem to be timeless (or looping endlessly), rich in vivid sensory detail, and have not been processed.  Episodic memories are linear, organized sequentially in time and space, have had non-critical details pruned, and we have assigned meanings to the experiences.

These traumatic memories can be accessed by alternately stimulating the left and right sides of the brain.  This process is called bilateral stimulation (BLS).  BLS can be applied by having the client follow your fingers moving rapidly side-to-side with the eyes (which was the original form of EMDR), by playing sounds alternately in each ear, by having the client hold vibrating discs in each hand, or simply by alternately tapping the client’s knees or hands.  EMDR is a powerful technique which can unleash memories that flood a person.  Therapists are trained in specific protocols to deal with the BLS processing and any flooding that occurs, so it is important to find an experienced therapist if you are working with serious trauma or abuse.

The problems with trauma seem to occur not because we feel pain or sadness, but because of the thoughts about ourselves (incorrect interpretations) and the defenses we consciously or unconsciously come up with try to push those feelings away, often draining large amounts of energy.  EMDR can help a person make meaning out of disconnected painful memories, which moves the memories from being potential time bombs that are inadvertently triggered into memories of sadness, grief, anger or other emotions which can be felt and simply experienced without huge disruption of our everyday lives.

People with big traumas, like coming close to death in an accident or attack, or rape and abuse, experience enough dissociation that memories are lost and one’s personality can feel fragmented.  This splitting can lead to self-destructive behaviors, like cutting or suicide.  It’s important to recognize that trauma and dissociation can occur from smaller traumas, ones others might not react to so strongly – like getting inoculations or going to the dentist.  To some extent all of us experience dissociation, like driving past a freeway exit, or losing our sense of ourselves while watching a movie.

The Insight
I haven’t seen psychological research or trainings talking about the unconscious turning away from Self as an underlying mechanism of trauma.  I have heard it described in teachings of the Buddha and in modern day exemplars like Adyashanti, a spiritual teacher trained in the Zen tradition who now teaches about enlightenment and waking up.

In essence, here’s what happens.  Some painful experience is overwhelming.  We automatically and unconsciously turn away from the pain – by numbing our feelings, by imagining we are somewhere else, by going up into thoughts and out of attention to our bodies.  It is an admirable and effective strategy with unintended consequences.  What we don’t realize when we turn away from the pain is that often we are turning away from connection with our fundamental Self.

To understand the concept of Self, we need a spiritual perspective.  There is a spiritual part of each person which may or may not be consciously experienced.  Unlike our bodies and our personalities, this part of Self was not born and will not die.  You can understand this yourself by continuing a process of asking “Am I this (thought, emotion, perception, body feeling, intuition, etc.)?” over and over and following that to its end.  This exercise brings you to the realization that there is no “me”, there is just noticing without judgment (witnessing without placing what is witnessed into categories of good and bad, safe or scary, liking or disliking.)

Some of the qualities of this witnessing without judging are that nothing is dismissed or defended against; there is the deepest caring and noticing of whatever happens including murder, rape, and cruelty without losing the knowing that the witnessing Self is OK (this is not condoning or tolerating cruelty – rather it is not turning away from these because it overwhelms our feelings); it is present in the here and now without being confined to time and space; and it is loving.  It is noticing without a noticer, i.e. it watches without being an object or thing that watches.  What watches in me is the same that watches in you, and notices all beings and all matter – this is the unitive experience, the knowing that we are all one.

The paradox is that this oneness manifests itself in separated personalities and bodies and our suffering comes from identifying me as just the separate personality and body.  Full enlightenment happens when one’s identification stretches to include the transcendent, and then stretches further to include both identification with the transcendent and the particular human experience of the transcendent – this is called nondual.

That gives you a framework to understand the phenomenon of the splitting away from Self.  By not being able to tolerate the noticing of emotional, physical and mental pain, we introduce a split-off consciousness in ourselves – and most importantly, we cut ourselves off from contact with the knowing and experience of being OK no matter what happens.  This has been represented by many religious teachings.  It underlies the Christian idea that hell is eternal life separated from God, or the Hindu concept that life is Maya or illusion, or the Buddhist notion of being caught on the Wheel of Samsara.

So the antidote to suffering is to reconnect with our non-judging awareness, and work with the things that get in the way of being able to just notice and experience all our thoughts, emotions and sensations.

How This Works in Bereavement
In western cultures, we work to handle grieving by coming to the point of acceptance, and then of getting on with our lives.  The dead are dead, and out of our lives, so we work to remember the good times and forget the sorrow.  In eastern and other cultures, there are beliefs about continued contact and veneration of ancestors and friends who have passed away.

Several times doing EMDR sessions with clients who were dealing with unfinished business regarding loved ones who had died, the clients had spontaneous experiences of being in the presence of those who had passed.  A daughter who had died of cancer came back and helped her father reconnect with the good times they had had and also to deal with the impending death of his father.  A client, who had been afraid of his father growing up, was told by that deceased father how proud he was of his son.

I had also been exposed through several visits to the Brazilian healer, John-of-God, to the Brazilian beliefs in on-going support by deceased physicians and saints.  Ninety million Brazilians go weekly to Spiritism centers to pray for that type of support and do hands on energetic healings.

These experiences made me interested in a book by psychologist Alan Blotkin called “Induced After Death Communication.”  Dr. Blotkin worked for more than 20 years in a Chicago area Veterans Administration Hospital with Vietnam, Korean and Gulf War veterans and found that using a modified version of the EMDR protocol, he could reliably induce experiences of veterans communicating with those who had died.  Images of buddies who had been blown apart in combat were replaced by experiences of these same soldiers alive and well, telling the veteran how glad they were that he had lived.  Women and children who had been killed by an American soldier told him that they forgave him, and that their deaths had been inevitable and they were doing fine.

By replacing ideas of what had happened, and interpretations of what it meant about their role with experiences of communicating deeply with people who have passed on, Dr. Blotkin was able to bring lasting peace to many veterans – and to duplicate that in private practice with a variety of clients after he left the V.A.  He was able to follow many of the veterans for years to verify that these were not temporary feelings of relief, but that the healing effects lasted.  One interesting observation he noted in his book was that no matter how scared the veterans were of being cursed or hated by people they had killed, the beings who communicated in this way universally appreciated the veteran and assisted the veteran in coming to peace with what had happened.

Without debating whether these were actually dead spirits communicating, it is clear that adopting an approach that involves continuing to relate to what has happened and to those involved is healthier than disconnecting, breaking communication and dissociating from the feelings and memories.

What we can learn from looking at healing trauma is that unconsciously turning away from connection with our deepest inner self promotes a sense of suffering.  We can turn that suffering around by paying attention to the function of witnessing without judgment – by becoming aware that we are not just bodies and minds vulnerable to anything that happens to us, but that we are also consciousness or noticing.  As we stop fighting what has happened and learn how to observe the waves of thoughts, feelings and sensory perceptions that wash through us, no matter how poignant or cruel, there is great comfort in connecting with Self.  We make better choices from that place of stillness inside, which comes through noticing ourselves noticing.